Growing up in the early ’90s, I was desperate for a Sega Genesis. My parents, however, had other thoughts on how I should be spending my free time during my childhood. By the time I’d saved up enough of my allowance, I was over Sonic the Hedgehog. I’ve barely thought about video games since. All that changed in March when my boyfriend Richie came home with a Nintendo Switch, Gen Z’s version of the Game Boy that can be hooked up to your TV or played on-the-go. I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore the fact that my adult boyfriend was passing time during self-isolation hunting for mushrooms on Mario Brothers.
A few days later, weary of my jigsaw puzzle, I grabbed the Switch and downloaded Animal Crossing: New Horizons after seeing a ton of buzz about the newest version of the iconic game online. It looked amusing — who wouldn’t want to build a happy life with cute animals on an island? After the first day, I was hooked, suddenly finding myself competing with Richie for Switch screen time.
With real life in limbo, Animal Crossing has become my virtual happy place, as it has for many people (over five million of them; mostly adult women like me and tons of celebrities; even AOC loves Animal Crossing). With video games typically being confined to the gaming subculture, it’s surprising that this game has become a pop-culture phenomenon of 2020. Here, I present to you some of the reasons why Animal Crossing is the game for the Coronavirus moment — and beyond.
Animal Crossing: New Horizon is the happy place the world needs RN
For the uninitiated, in New Horizons, each player inhabits their own island where Tom Nook, a cuddly racoon in a Hawaiian shirt, tasks them with creating a society by building homes, stores, and even a museum (because culture). My character is a girl who goes by Caitylou (my childhood nickname) who spends her days on Pinkerton (yes, you also get to name your island) digging up fossils, collecting fruit, and catching butterflies. The only human living on Pinkerton, she’s joined by friendly animal neighbours like Jay, a blue bird who loves working out, and visitors like Saharah, a travelling sales-camel.
No one’s keeping score, there’s no bad guys (except for the occasional swarm of angry wasps) and money literally grows on trees. It’s so chill, a player in a Wired story summarized it as “a version of life in which everything works out.” At a time when it feels like next to nothing is in our control, playing Animal Crossing, even just for a few minutes, can help restore your sense of agency. For a Type-A Virgo like me, it’s intoxicating.
You can hang with IRL friends by using the multi-player feature
Animal Crossing is all about customizing your own unique, utopian island filled with the things that make you smile. And that includes real people. The game has a multiplayer feature that lets you host other players on your island or visit theirs either by adding them as a friend on Switch or by sharing your unique Dodo code. (Elijah Wood has been known to pop over to random players’ islands.) And you can do all sorts of fun things together that you can’t do in person right now, like the American couple who invited friends to their virtual wedding ceremony after their nuptials were cancelled.
“I’ve seen people put on fashion shows, watch meteor showers together, and even throw surprise birthday parties in Animal Crossing,” says Kristen Valnicek, a Canadian professional gamer who goes by KittyPlays online. “Sometimes these virtual interactions can be as powerful as real-life ones.” I couldn’t agree more. Having spent time very little time outside of my apartment over the past two months, I get a rush whenever Caitylou’s plane touches down on a friend’s island. It almost feels like I’m going on a holiday, even if it’s only for half an hour and I’m not leaving my couch.
Playing video games can help you handle coronavirus stress
Because there is absolutely no point to this game, you literally can’t lose, and we need that positive reinforcement now more than ever. Plus, feeling a sense of accomplishment by mastering and completing tasks, no matter how small — like when Caitylou finally collected enough iron nuggets to build a store on Pinkerton — is an important step in reducing stress and promoting relaxation, say experts.
“To have the uncertainty of everyday life replaced with something where you know how to start it, you know how to end it — it’s a really great outlet,” says Toronto-based clinical psychologist Dr. Khush Amaria. But try not to use this as your only coping mechanism, she warns. “Distraction is not a bad tool for managing mental health, we just don’t want people to be relying on distraction only.”
You need zero skills
A major bonus for this n00b: you don’t need any skills to play Animal Crossing. (When I had previously tried video games like Mario Brothers game, I was so bad at it I quickly gave up out of frustration.) Animal Crossing slowly unfolds day by day, so you never feel overwhelmed by what you see on the screen. In fact, it’s so slow that some users are time-travelling (aka changing the date on their Nintendo Switch) for faster-paced play.
It's a creative outlet
The customization in New Horizons is mind-blowing, especially when I consider the Sega I pined for 30 years ago. For interior-designer wannabes, going HAM perfecting your home makes your real-world domestic fantasies a virtual reality. Caitylou has a garden that I, a downtown Toronto condo dweller, could only dream of, while other players have been creating cozy spaces like Zen gardens, stacked libraries, and sewing suites. Always wanted a Monet? No problem! The Getty Museum has released a code generator that brings virtual masterpieces to your walls.
Even more intense is the fashion world’s collective obsession with this game. Players are kitting out their avatars in hype streetwear pieces from Supreme, full runway looks from Chanel, and celebrity outfits (my favourite is the J.W. Anderson patchwork sweater worn by Harry Styles), which are either designed by themselves or gained using QR codes shared by others. Hot tip: you can find them on Reddit.
There’s even exclusive Animal Crossing fashion events like the pop-up island party hosted by New York designer Sandy Liang, which was so popular it had a virtual line-up of players waiting to get in. Companies are starting to look for ways to cash in, with Net-A-Porter has reportedly already launched Animal Crossing designs in China. Personally, I get gassed whenever I put Caitylou in a new outfit (her signature colour is pink). In a way, it helps me forget the fact that I’ve spent the past two months in sweats and put any spring wardrobe shopping on hold (for now).